Sep 16, 2019

Axios World

Welcome back to Axios World. We're heading around the world tonight in 1,572 words (6 minutes).

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1 big thing: Brexit outcast hits back at Boris

Rory stares down Brexit. Photo: Niklas Halle'n/AFP/Getty Images

Rory Stewart, who challenged Boris Johnson for leadership of the U.K.'s Conservative Party over the summer only to see Johnson expel him from the party this month, says British politics have descended into an unrecognizable state in which ends justify any means.

“I think our politics is breaking. The parties are breaking. But unfortunately you do get a sense that the center isn’t holding either.”

Driving the news: As the member of Parliament and former Cabinet minister sat down with Axios at a coffee shop in D.C. today, Luxembourg’s prime minister was standing next to an empty podium meant for Prime Minister Johnson, who backed out of the press conference due to anti-Brexit hecklers. 

  • Johnson spent the day trying to convince European leaders (and British voters) that he’s serious about seeking a new divorce deal before his “do or die” Brexit deadline, Oct. 31.
  • But he’s also insisting he’s willing and able to pull the U.K. out without a deal. That would be chaotic and costly, with logjams at the border and shortages of some foods and medicines.
  • It would also mean ignoring the law that Stewart and 20 other Conservative MPs were expelled for supporting. It says Johnson has to ask Brussels to extend the deadline to avoid crashing out.

Stewart says he’s “99% confident” that law will prevent a “no deal” exit on Halloween. But he notes that Johnson’s advisers claim they’ve found a mysterious “legal loophole" to circumvent it.

  • Stewart says the most likely outcome is that Johnson personally refuses to seek an extension "and we’re forced to find a workaround” — perhaps by enlisting an ambassador or senior civil servant to make the request, or issuing it directly from Parliament. 
  • He says planning for such eventualities is currently underway, “but the first step we would take is to take him to court.”

A former diplomat, Stewart's resume includes tutoring princes William and Harry and writing an award-winning book on his solo travels through Afghanistan.

  • He says Johnson's "unprecedented" purge on Sept. 4 — which also targeted two former treasury secretaries and Winston Churchill's grandson — went far beyond what the likes of Margaret Thatcher would have countenanced.
  • “This is trying to knock people out of their seats on the eve of an election,” he says. “It makes you wonder what the point of Parliament is if the central executive can simply fire anyone who disagrees with them.”
  • Stewart notes that Johnson and his allies repeatedly defied his predecessor, Theresa May. “I’m looking at a Cabinet where they basically destroyed the prime minister with impunity and are now demanding total loyalty to themselves,” he says.

What to watch: Stewart predicts a general election later this year. Barred from running as a Conservative, he's considering an independent candidacy.

  • No U.K. party currently echoes Stewart in advocating a “soft” Brexit that delivers on the referendum but avoids the harshest economic consequences.
  • He compares Brexit to the gun debate in the U.S., with the two sides "so disinclined to agree on anything" that compromise is nearly impossible.
  • Stewart won’t join colleagues who’ve decamped to the centrist Liberal Democrats. That party's position of ignoring the referendum result is “extreme in the other direction" and "a constitutional horror," Stewart argues.

Between the lines: That leaves Johnson’s Conservatives and a hard-left Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn.

“I’d vote Conservative. I’d vote Conservative,” Stewart repeats, an apparent attempt to convince himself. A lengthy pause follows. “But ... would I?”
Bonus: Cameron is back

Cameron (L) with Boris Johnson in 2015. Photo: Jack Taylor/AFP/Getty Images

Three years after his career-defining, and ending, defeat in the 2016 Brexit referendum, David Cameron has at last broken his silence ahead of the release of his memoir.

Here's what he has to say.

2. Suspicion swirls over attack in Saudi Arabia

Smoke billows from Saudi Aramco facility. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

The Yemen-based Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for attacks over the weekend on Saudi oil installations, but the U.S. is blaming Iran.

The latest:

  • “U.S. officials shared with Saudi Arabia … their assessment that Iran launched more than 20 drones and at least a dozen ballistic missiles at the Saudi oil facilities on Saturday,” per WSJ, which reports that Saudi officials — who have said only that the weapons used appeared to be Iranian-made — aren’t entirely convinced.
  • Trump has sent mixed signals. He has said it’s “looking” like Iran was responsible and the U.S. is “locked and loaded,” but also that he’d prefer to avoid military conflict and wants to get a variety of assessments from countries and experts before attributing blame.
  • Iran denies responsibility. Tehran also ruled out a meeting between President Hassan Rouhani and Trump at the UN General Assembly meeting next week.

The big picture: Suffering under U.S. sanctions imposed after Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal, the Iranians see fears of a nuclear buildup and instability in the region as leverage.

  • Trump says he wants to talk, but is also standing by his “maximum pressure” approach. Until this dynamic changes, things could continue to escalate.

Go deeper:

3. Tense election eve in Israel

Netanyahu. Photo: Amir Levy/Getty Images

Israel will go to the polls tomorrow for the second time in less than 6 months, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political future once again in the balance.

The latest polls show Netanyahu and his allies getting close to the magic number of 61 members needed for a parliamentary majority, Axios contributor Barak Ravid writes.

Why it matters: With 3 corruption cases pending and a hearing scheduled for Oct. 3, Netanyahu needs to stay in power to ensure he’ll stay out of jail.

  • Polls published Friday show his Likud party tied with Benny Gantz's center-left Blue and White party, with 32 seats each.
  • In the previous election they each won 35 seats but Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition. He dissolved Parliament before the opportunity to do so fell to Gantz.
  • The polls also show the right-wing parties together winning 58 or 59 seats, the best projection for Netanyahu since the start of the campaign.
  • Netanyahu spent most of today and yesterday riling up his base on Facebook Live with claims Gantz is about to win.

What to watch: If neither Netanyahu nor Gantz can form a coalition, Israel could enter a protracted political crisis.

  • Prospects for a unity government look dim. Gantz has already ruled out sitting in a coalition headed by Netanyahu.
  • Israel's President Reuven Rivlin would be tasked with seeking a compromise solution — with or without Netanyahu in the prime minister’s office.
4. Africa: Jail-dweller beats office-holders in Tunisia’s election

Tunisians line up to vote. Photo: Chedly Ben Ibrahim/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Returns are still coming in from Tunisia, but voters appears to have propelled an obscure law professor and a media mogul who campaigned from jail into a runoff.

Why it matters: Tunisia is the only country where the Arab Spring yielded sustained democracy. But voters are clearly unhappy with what their leaders have delivered. In a 26-candidate race, they rejected a slate of powerful politicians in favor of populist outsiders.

  • Nabil Karoui, the media mogul, was leading the polls when arrested last month on tax evasion charges he says are politically motivated.
  • Kais Saied, a socially conservative law professor, “speaks in public in formal Arabic as if in a faculty meeting, drives an old car and wants to remain in his humble house if elected rather than move into the luxurious presidential palace at Carthage,” per Reuters.

The winner of the runoff will be Tunisia’s second democratically elected president. Beji Caid Essebsi was elected in 2014 and died in office in July.

5. Data du jour: What Americans want in the world
Expand chart
Reproduced from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs; Chart: Axios Visuals

Americans have become a bit less isolationist in the Trump era, according to a poll from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, with 69% thinking the U.S. is better off playing an active role globally, compared to 58% 5 years ago and 64% toward the end of the Obama administration.

Other key findings:

  • 87% of Americans think international trade is good for the U.S. economy. That's a whopping 28% higher than in 2016, with steady increases over the past 3 years.
  • Most Americans think military alliances (74%), military superiority (69%) and stationing troops overseas (51%) make the U.S. safer. NATO has substantial support from Democrats (86%) and Republicans (62%).
  • Just 27% think U.S. military interventions make the country safer.

Partisan splits:

  • 78% of Republicans see "large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the U.S." as a critical threat (up from 61% in 2017), compared to 19% of Democrats.
  • 78% of Democrats see climate change as a critical threat (up from 69% in 2017), compared to 23% of Republicans (up from 16% in 2017).
  • Just last year, Republicans (42%) and Democrats (40%) were about equally likely to see "the development of China as a world power" as a critical threat. Now 54% of Republicans do, compared to 36% of Democrats.
6. What I'm reading: A raid on North Korea, in Madrid

North Korean Embassy in Spain. Photo: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

In The Guardian, Giles Tremlett goes deep on one of the most bizarre stories of 2019: the storming of the North Korean Embassy in Madrid.

Flashback: A man named Adrian Hong appeared at the embassy on the evening of Feb. 22, claiming to be a businessman bearing a gift.

  • Once inside, he let in a team of assailants who tied up the embassy's employees and attempted to convince a diplomat, So Yun-sok, to defect.
  • The diplomat refused and the plan unraveled, but when police arrived (after a warning from a panicked woman who'd managed to escape) Hong came to the door and told them nothing was amiss.
  • The attackers made off with hard drives and other materials. Hong ordered a getaway Uber using the alias "Oswaldo Trump."
  • Just one of them was ever arrested — a former U.S. Marine named Christopher Ahn who was (somewhat bizarrely) released on bail.

Hong, Tremlett reports, is a "Los Angeles-based, Yale-educated Mexican-Korean" with connections in Washington and a history of helping North Koreans defect.

  • He visited the White House 5 times between 2011 and 2012. South Korean media report, with no evidence, that his work brought him in contact with the CIA.
  • Lee Wolosky, "a deeply connected Washington insider" who worked in the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, is now Hong's lawyer.
  • Hong's group, Free Joseon, also claims to have rescued the son of Kim Jong-un's half brother following his father's assassination in 2017.

Read the piece.

7. Stories we're watching

Fighting a forest fire in Indonesia. Photo: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

  1. Ebola death toll in DRC nears 2,000
  2. White House confirms death of bin Laden's son
  3. Draghi's time running out at Europe's central bank
  4. Poll: 85% of Afghans say they're suffering
  5. Expert Voices: Trump and Dems may see foreign policy overlap post-Bolton
  6. Juul expands to China
  7. Notre Dame fire spread dangerous lead


"Where's my favorite dictator?"
— Trump at the G7 while scanning a room for Egypt's Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, per the WSJ